Fires of Winter by Johanna Lindsey

Afew miles inland from the west coast of Wales, and to the left of Anglesey Island, a small village was nestled in a tiny clearing. On a steep hill overlooking the village stood an imposing manor. The gray stone building looked down on the village, almost like a mother guarding her children with a watchful eye.

The village basked in the luxurious warmth of the midsummer sun. Not so the manor on the hill, which remained cold and forbidding, even with the sun touching its harsh gray walls. Travelers passing through the countryside often had the same impression of coldness. Today was no different.

A stranger slowly found his way to the heart of the village, keeping a wary eye on the manor. But soon the activity around him took the tall newcomer’s attention away from the protecting mother on the hill. His unease gradually left him, and was replaced by a feeling that he was about to have some long overdue good fortune. More than once he turned in a complete circle, his hard eyes feasting on the peaceful tranquility, the dozen or so closely-spaced cottages, the children dashing here and there, playing their innocent games, and the women—ah, the women! He quickly spotted five or six who were to his liking. They didn’t even notice him, as they went about their everyday chores.

The stranger, his trousers gartered but deplorably threadbare, with a filthy wolfskin serving as his mantle, could hardly believe his eyes. There was not a man in sight, not a single one. And the women, so many, and of all ages! Could he have stumbled on some ancient Amazon village? But no, there were children, boys and girls alike. The men must be working in the fields somewhere to the east, for he had seen none on his way.

“Can I be of help, good sir?”

Startled, the stranger jumped, then swung around quickly to face a girl with a bright, curious smile, whom he judged to have seen no less than sixteen winters. She suited his tastes perfectly, with her neatly braided flaxen hair and wide green eyes set in a cherubic, innocent face. His eyes traveled downward, but only for a second, so the girl would have no hint of his intentions, but in that instant her overripe breasts, pressed hard against her brown shift, and her wide, sturdy hips caused an ache in his groin.

When the stranger did not reply, the girl spoke again, cheerfully. “It has been many months since a traveler has come our way—not since the last of those from Anglesey Island passed through on their search for new homes. Do you come from Anglesey also?”

“Yea, ’tis not the same anymore,” he finally answered. Oh, he could tell her of his woes if he was of a mind, but she would have her own soon enough, if he had his way, and it was not a sympathetic ear that he was in need of. “Where are the men of your village? I do not even spy an old man whittling away his time.”

The girl smiled sadly for just a moment. “As it happens, the old ones took the fever two winters past, and are no more. Many young and old died that year.” Then her smile brightened. “A wild boar was spotted this morn, and the men who remain have given chase. There will be a feast tonight, and you are welcome to join.”

His curiosity prompted the man to ask, “But are there no fields to tend? Or is a wild boar more important?”

The girl giggled unabashed. “You must surely be a man from the sea, or you would know that the crops are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, with little to do ’atween.”

A frown creased his haggard brow. “Then you expect the men to return shortly?”

“Oh, nay, not if they can help it,” she laughed. “They will linger over the chase, to enjoy it more. ’Tis not often a boar comes this close.”

The man’s features relaxed somewhat, and his thin lips curled in a grin. “What is your name, girl?”

“Enid,” she replied easily.

“And have you a husband, Enid?”

She blushed prettily, her eyes lowered. “Nay, sir, I live with my father still.”

“And he is with the others?”

Her green eyes gleamed with laughter again. “He would not miss the chase!”

This is too good to be true, the man thought gleefully before he spoke again. “I have traveled far and the morning sun is so warming, Enid. Might I rest a while in your home?”

For the first time she looked nervous. “I—I don’t—”

“Only for a few minutes, Enid,” he added quickly.

She thought for a moment. “I am sure my father would not mind,” she replied, and turned to lead the way.

The dwelling she entered was small indeed: only a single room, with a makeshift wall separating two sleeping mats placed in a corner of the dirt floor. A blackened stone hearth occupied one wall; two crude chairs and a table were placed before it. Two exquisitely crafted chalices inlaid with semi-precious stones were on the table. They caught and held the man’s eye. They were easily worth a small fortune; he could not understand how they might have found their way into this humble cottage.

Enid watched the man curiously as he eyed the gifts she had received from the lord of the manor for her services gladly rendered. The tall stranger was not handsome, but neither was he repulsive. And although he obviously owned little of worth, he had a strong back and could provide well for her as a husband. She had little chance of finding a husband among her own people, for all those who were eligible had already tried her charms, and though they did not find her lacking, neither would they take her to wife, knowing their friends had also tasted of her.

Enid smiled to herself as she developed the scheme. She would speak with her father on his return and lay her plan before him. He was sympathetic to her plight, and longed for a son-in-law to help him in the fields. Together they would coax the stranger to stay for a time. Then Enid would use her wiles to bring forth the man’s proposal. This time, yea, this time she would have the marriage first and the play after. She would not add another mistake to her long list.

“Would you have some ale for your thirst, good sir?” she asked sweetly, drawing the man’s attention to her once more.

“Yea, ’twould be most welcome,” he replied, and waited patiently for her to set the cup in his hands.

The man eyed the open portal nervously, and seeing the thatched door beside it unhinged against the wall, he finished the ale quickly. Without a word, he moved to the door and set it in place, blocking out the morning sun. The door was not made for protection, he could tell, but merely to keep out the cold or the heat and, to suit his purpose, prying eyes.

“The morning grows hot,” he offered in explanation, and the girl accepted this, not in the least frightened.

“Would you have food, sir? ’Twill not take long to prepare for you.”

“Yea, you are kind,” he answered, his thin lips turning up in a grateful smile. But to himself he admitted the food could wait; his loins could not.

The girl turned her back on him and went to the hearth. In that moment he pulled a knife from beneath his tunic and slipped stealthily up behind her. Enid’s short frame stiffened when the knife touched her throat and the man’s chest pressed into her back. She did not fear for her body, as most girls her age might, but for her life.

“Do not scream, Enid, or I will have to hurt you,” the man said slowly, one hand cupping her rounded breast. “And anyone else who would come to your aid. ’Tis a tumble I want, no more.”

Enid choked back a sob, seeing her newly formed plans dissolve with his words. Such a short-lived dream—to have a husband at long last.

A little to the south of the village, a lone figure hobbled along through the trees, mumbling every step of the way. The horse that had long since thrown its rider was nowhere to be seen, but still the youth turned and, raising a small fist, cursed loudly.

“’Twill be a cold day before I take you back, you pampered nag!”

Pride was more bruised than the rear end on which the rider had landed, and with a hand pressed firmly against the offended area, the youth continued on to the village. Anticipating a place to rest, the youth raised a proud head and endured the curious stares of the villagers.

One woman approached, and without voicing the obvious question—what had happened to the youth’s horse—she said instead, “We have a visitor, Bren. Enid has given him welcome.”

Cool gray eyes turned toward Enid’s cottage and then back to the woman. “Why did they wish privacy?”

The woman smiled knowingly. “You know Enid.”

“Yea, but she does not give her favors to strangers.”

Without another word the youth, sword in hand, crossed the short distance to Enid’s cottage and moved the closed door aside. It took a few moments for the silver-gray eyes to adjust to the darkened cottage, but then they lighted on the couple in the corner, unaware of the intrusion. The stranger was mounted atop Enid, thrusting his slim hips like a rutting boar.

At first the gray eyes were fascinated, watching the mating of the two creatures, the deep plunging of the male between the spread thighs of the female, listening to the grunts and groans that drifted from the corner. But then the flash of silver caught the gray eyes, and like clouds warning of an approaching storm, the youth’s eyes darkened, drawn to the knife in the stranger’s hand.

Without a second thought, the youth crossed the room with purposeful strides and raised sword, then skillfully cut into the stranger’s behind. A shocked scream echoed through the cottage, and the man jumped up off the cowering Enid and scrambled away from his attacker.

Enid gasped when she saw the reason that the stranger had jumped up. “Bren, what are you doing here?”

The youth stood with legs astride and answered without emotion, “’Tis fortunate, I suppose, that the nag I call Willow threw me, or I would not have come in time to see justice done. He forced you, did he not?”

“Yea,” Enid answered and could not stop the sobs of relief that shook her body.

“The girl was not a virgin!” the stranger blurted out angrily, cupping both hands over his bleeding backside.

This was not the girl’s father, the man easily surmised, but just a boy, and a very young boy by the sound of his high-pitched voice. The boy was clearly not of the village, for the youth’s wealth was apparent from the richly embroidered mantle covering the silver cloth tunic which matched the angry eyes of the wearer. The sword that had so accosted the stranger was like none he had ever seen: a broadsword surely, but exceptionally thin and lightweight, with sparkling blue and red jewels encrusted on the hilt.

“That she was no virgin did not give you leave to take her. Yea, ’tis known that Enid is generous with her favors,” the youth said, then added in a lower voice, “but only to those of her choosing. She bid you welcome, and you repaid her in this unspeakable manner. What shall be the punishment, Enid? Shall I sever his head and lay it at your feet, or perhaps that shriveled organ that stood so proud but a moment ago?”

The man sputtered with outrage. “I’ll cut out your heart for that, boy!”

Giggles came from a bevy of females who had gathered in the doorway upon hearing the scream. The naked man’s face turned livid with rage. To add further to his humiliation, the youth’s own tinkling laughter joined the others.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, Enid spoke indignantly. “Bren, you should not make fun of him.”

The laughter stopped, and the youth shot her a contemptuous look. “Why, Enid? The stranger obviously thinks he is a match for me. I, who speared my first wild boar when I was but nine, and killed five worthless scavengers with my father when they would do harm to your village. I, who have held a sword in my hand since I could first walk, who have been trained diligently for the seriousness of warfare. This ravager of women thinks he can cut out my heart with that toy in his hand. Look at him! Tall though he may be, he is but a sniveling coward.”

This last insult brought a roar of outrage from the man, and he jumped forward, knife in hand, arm raised, fully intending to carry out his earlier threat. But the youth had not boasted falsely and stepped aside with lithe grace. A slight twist of the arm drew a long streak of blood across the man’s chest. This was followed by a booted foot to his already crimson behind.

“Mayhaps not a coward, but certainly a bungling oaf,” the youth taunted as the man slammed into the opposite wall.

“Have you had enough, rapist?”

The knife fell from the man’s hand when he hit the wall, but he quickly grabbed it and charged again. This time the youth’s long blade cut skillfully from the left, and the man looked angrily at the perfectly formed X on his upper chest. The wounds were not deep, but sufficed to cover his chest and lower torso in his own sticky blood.

“You inflict but scratches, boy,” the man growled. “My blade, though ’tis small, will still find a deadly mark!”

Since the opponents were now only a foot apart, the man saw his chance, and swiftly went for the slim white throat of his antagonist. But the other stepped aside with the ease of a matador moving out of the path of a charging bull. The man’s knife slashed through open space, and a second later it was struck from his hand with a vicious blow and clattered across the room, out of reach.

The stranger was left facing Enid, who glared at him without pity. “You fool! Bren was but toying with you.”

He saw the truth of her words and paled visibly. And though it nettled him sorely to be bested by a mere boy, he now feared for his life. He faced the boy and prayed that the death blow would be swift.

There was no mercy in the cold gray eyes that regarded him, and the laugh that came from the soft, sensuous lips chilled his blood.

“By what name are you called?”

“Donald—Donald Gillie,” he answered quickly.

“And from where have you traveled?”


At the mention of the name, the gray eyes narrowed. “And were you there last year, when the cursed Vikings struck Holyhead Island?”

“Aye, ’twas a horror to see such slaughter and—”

“Cease! I did not ask for an account of what the bastards did. Know you this, Donald Gillie! Your life rests in the maid’s hands.” The youth turned to Enid. “What shall it be? Shall I end his ravishing days here and now?”

“Nay!” Enid gasped.

“Then shall I maim him for what he has done to you? Sever an arm? A leg?”

“Nay! Nay, Bren!”

“Justice shall be done here, Enid!” The youth snapped impatiently. “My justice is more lenient than my father’s. Were it Lord Angus who had found him rutting ’atween your legs, he would have skewed him on a pole and left him for the wolves. I have toyed with him, yea, but his crime I have seen with my own eyes and he will pay for it.”

Enid looked on with wide, fearful eyes. Donald Gillie stood with his shoulders slumped, awaiting his fate. The youth’s smooth forehead creased in thought, then the gray eyes lit up with a solution.

“I have it, then. Would you take the man for a husband, Enid?”

The barely audible whisper was not long in coming. “Yea.”

“Will you agree to this, Donald Gillie?” Gray eyes pierced him sharply.

The man’s head snapped up. “Yea, I will!” the words gushed forth.

“So be it, then; you shall be wedded,” the youth spoke with finality. “’Tis a good bargain you’ve made, Donald Gillie. But know you this. You cannot say yea today, then nay on the morrow. Do not make me regret that I have let you off so easily. If the girl comes to harm, or if you have in mind to desert her, there will not be a hole deep enough for you to hide in, for I will find you and right the wrong with your life.”

The man could not contain his joy at having such a light punishment. “I will not harm the girl.”

“Good,” the youth replied curtly, then turned toward the door and yelled, “You women, off with you now. You have had your entertainment for this day. Leave these two to get acquainted.” He turned back and said, “Enid, wash him quickly before your father returns. You will have much to explain to that good man.”

“Your own father has truly raised a merciful son, my lord,” Donald Gillie replied.

The youth laughed heartily. “My father has no son.”

Donald Gillie looked after the departing figure, then appealed to Enid for explanation. “What did he mean?”

“’Twas no he.” She laughed at his confusion. “’Twas the Lady Brenna who spared your life.”